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How the Potato Changed the World
October 22, 2011 10:36 PM   Subscribe

Charles C. Mann on How the Potato Changed the World. Photo Gallery. Video. Alfred Crosby Interviewed on the Columbian Exchange.
posted by Rumple (38 comments total) 29 users marked this as a favorite

 
Definitely changed the world.
posted by flapjax at midnite at 11:13 PM on October 22, 2011


From the article: "In 2008 a Lebanese farmer dug up a potato that weighed nearly 25 pounds. It was bigger than his head."

Hmm... wonder if he took B Kliban's advice?
posted by flapjax at midnite at 11:17 PM on October 22, 2011 [2 favorites]


“By feeding rapidly growing populations, [it] permitted a handful of European nations to assert dominion over most of the world between 1750 and 1950.”

In miniature, the Maori Musket Wars (1807 and 1842), aka The Potato Wars.

The traditional Maori staple crop was the kumara, a thumb sized sweet potato. Potatoes are easier to grow (meaning that they could be grown while the strong young men were away) and have a longer shelf life (the better to feed people on a long voyage). The result was that potato fed clans became capable of long range offensive warfare, with war made all the more common by the fact that the first iwi to get potatoes were also the first to obtain firearms.

The results were often as grim as European colonialism. Potato fed clans sailed off to war, enslaved the defeated and forced them to work on potato plantations, providing the calories needed for the next big raid.
posted by justsomebodythatyouusedtoknow at 11:39 PM on October 22, 2011 [5 favorites]


The WSJ article on this book puts it out there that prior to Colonization, there were no earth worms throughout most of north america...the ice age had wiped them all out. Apparently all worms we have now were accidentally introduced by European colonization.

That's fucking mind blowing.
posted by Chekhovian at 11:46 PM on October 22, 2011 [5 favorites]


Chekhovian: worms as an invasive species - that's amazing. It wasn't a good thing for native North American plants, apparently.

When earthworms arrive, they quickly consume the leaf litter, packing the nutrients deep in the soil in the form of castings (worm excrement). Suddenly, [native North American] plants can no longer feed themselves; their fine, surface-level root systems are in the wrong place.
posted by justsomebodythatyouusedtoknow at 11:59 PM on October 22, 2011 [2 favorites]


I've seen New World crops cited as a major factor in the mid-Qing population boom in China, which in turn was seen as one of the root causes of the crises and rebellions of the 19th century.
posted by Abiezer at 12:05 AM on October 23, 2011


Potatoes, a history.

First people got real skinny, then they got real fat.

Also garlic salt.
posted by The Whelk at 12:29 AM on October 23, 2011 [1 favorite]


If this history of potatoes doesn't include sour cream, I'm not interested.
posted by oneswellfoop at 12:51 AM on October 23, 2011 [1 favorite]


Odd to see this FPP right after uploading potatoes to flickr

The story of the potato seems as deep and rich as the story of Salt (or Cod) - thanks for this post on my favourite foodstuff.
posted by infini at 1:44 AM on October 23, 2011 [2 favorites]


Mmmm... French Fries.
posted by XhaustedProphet at 2:09 AM on October 23, 2011


It is no easy thing to capture the wily potato.
posted by louche mustachio at 2:13 AM on October 23, 2011 [1 favorite]


It might also be mentioned that the potatoe put and end to Dan Quayle's political career.
posted by three blind mice at 2:17 AM on October 23, 2011 [1 favorite]


I thought the reports that Mr. Potato Head looks likes Hitler were wrong, but according to the Internet, these claims have been verified by an authentic signature.
posted by twoleftfeet at 2:34 AM on October 23, 2011


I'm already sorry for posting that last comment. They say that any serious online discussion will eventually lead to something being compared to Hitler. But potatoes?

Again, I apologize.
posted by twoleftfeet at 2:53 AM on October 23, 2011 [1 favorite]


Related
posted by Dr Dracator at 4:53 AM on October 23, 2011


I can only find the full version of this animation in the original Danish, but here's a snippet. It's really quite wonderful -- more than 20 years, I still vividly remember seeing it in 5th grade.
posted by AwkwardPause at 5:53 AM on October 23, 2011


20 years later...
posted by AwkwardPause at 5:53 AM on October 23, 2011


And then there's the linguistic aspect. Most linguists say "po-taht-to".
posted by twoleftfeet at 5:57 AM on October 23, 2011


Poking around on the web a while back for a completely unrelated reason, I got the impression that Peruvian purple potatoes were popular in Korea, which seemed odd. I was going to ask about this.

Poking around on Wikipedia this morning, it turns out they were popular in Europe too. (The French and German articles are longer.)

I'm still curious if anybody can confirm this. (Can you actually buy them in South Korea, or are they just a gardener's heirloom variety as they seem to be in Europe at this point?) Secondly, if anybody's tasted them, what do they taste like?

Since one of the French names is Truffe de Chine, 'China truffle', I'm wondering if this variety caught on in Asia first, and Europeans got it from there. Of course, the name doesn't necessarily mean anything.
posted by nangar at 6:12 AM on October 23, 2011


I've had purple potatoes (called "purple congo") here in Australia. They were long, hard to peel, and the color wasn't evenly distributed. They tasted funny and the flesh was uneven in texture - hard then soft. Not a success.
posted by Joe in Australia at 6:59 AM on October 23, 2011


Definitely changed the world.

Oh my glob. It originally used an actual potato.

I.. I'm speechless.
posted by curious nu at 7:16 AM on October 23, 2011


Yay! It must be economic botany week on Metafilter!

Next up: "In fields, backyards and closets across the country, the lowly hemp plant is helping us build a better world." (Only because the lowly hemp plant didn't get enough attention in BOT420.)
posted by sneebler at 7:27 AM on October 23, 2011


That was a really well written article. It was adapted from a book, and I think it shows — so many areas touched on. I love the concept of the "Columbian Exchange"
posted by benito.strauss at 7:33 AM on October 23, 2011 [1 favorite]


You can get purple potatoes at various farmer's markets in Los Angeles, and even occasionally from Trader Joe's. They are short and round with white and purple interiors. They seem to go bad (ie get soft) slightly quicker than regular potatoes. The flavor and texture seems no different to me.
posted by GregorWill at 8:40 AM on October 23, 2011


It might also be mentioned that the potatoe put and end to Dan Quayle's political career.

And that's something we can all be thankful fore.
posted by flapjax at midnite at 8:43 AM on October 23, 2011 [4 favorites]


What a fascinating article. I learned so many things I didn't know previously. Guano wars!
posted by thehmsbeagle at 10:58 AM on October 23, 2011


I've had purple potatoes as part of the Trader Joe's tri color potato mix. They're ok, texture is a little less waxy than a yellow potato, flavor isn't different from any other potato as far as I could tell. The only problem was that they leak some of their color in the water, so the other potatoes come out a vaguely lavender tint.
posted by TungstenChef at 11:58 AM on October 23, 2011


"Even a potato in a dark cellar has a certain low cunning about him which serves him in excellent stead. He knows perfectly well what he wants and how to get it. He sees the light coming from the cellar window and sends his shoots crawling straight thereto: they will crawl along the floor and up the wall and out at the cellar window; if there be a little earth anywhere on the journey he will find it and use it for his own ends. What deliberation he may exercise in the matter of his roots when he is planted in the earth is a thing unknown to us, but we can imagine him saying, 'I will have a tuber here and a tuber there, and I will suck whatsoever advantage I can from all my surroundings. This neighbour I will overshadow, and that I will undermine; and what I can do shall be the limit of what I will do. He that is stronger and better placed then I shall overcome me, and him that is weaker I will overcome.'
"The potato says these things by doing them, which is the best of languages. What is consciousness if this is not consciousness? We find it difficult to sympathise with the emotions of a potato; so we do with those of an oyster. Neither of these things makes a noise on being boiled or opened, and noise appeals to us more strongly than anything else, because we make so much about our own sufferings. Since, then, they do not annoy us by any expression of pain we call them emotionless; and so qua mankind they are; but mankind is not everybody[…]—Samuel Butler, Erewhon (ch. 23).
posted by misteraitch at 12:31 PM on October 23, 2011 [6 favorites]


OK. Thanks, people who've eaten purple potatoes. From the responses, I guess the only real attraction is 'hey,neat, they're purple!' Sorry for the derail. (But if you know anything more, I'm still interested.)
posted by nangar at 2:12 PM on October 23, 2011


Yes, this is a wonderful article. And it introduced me to the phrase "ocean of breakfast!"
posted by JHarris at 2:31 PM on October 23, 2011


Obligatory.
posted by Splunge at 3:30 PM on October 23, 2011 [1 favorite]


I guess I was the only person on metefilter who celebrated The International Year of the Potato in 2008?

All kidding aside, the Year of the Potato (an initiative of the Unite Nations) website as lots of interesting information, pictures and recipes from around the world.
posted by vespabelle at 4:13 PM on October 23, 2011


Most appropriate quote, misteraitch.
posted by benito.strauss at 5:19 PM on October 23, 2011


I sometimes get this mix of different root plants made in potato chips, I'm sure its in every major grocery store in the "healthierish" section. It has the purple things in it there, not bad the way they do it, but what isn't good when sliced thin, quick fried, and salted?
posted by Chekhovian at 5:26 PM on October 23, 2011


My father - who never tired of telling his affluent prodigy grew up in depression era Glasgow - and that time were tough.

The staple lunch for the kids at school was a potato. You bought it from home, took it to cook who peeled it then inserted a large hooked wire to hang in a large cauldron of boiling starchy water. This took about 20 minutes, after which there was precious little time play lunchtime football. So dad and his wee mates used to eat their potatoes raw.

Also my great grandfather was struck by lighting - twice.
posted by the noob at 6:19 PM on October 23, 2011 [1 favorite]


Once my little grand daughter was very impatient for dinner, and she was teething. She grabbed a small potato right out of her father's hand and began to eat it. My daughter was pretty upset. I said, it won't hurt her, but maybe you ought to wash it for her. I suggested 'blackmail pictures'. 'Really, it won't hurt her?' I told them that Russians make a raw potato salad in Summer and it's actually really nice.
So they washed the potato, gave it back. Her Dad filmed. My grand daughter ate the WHOLE potato AND all of her dinner!
Good times!
posted by Katjusa Roquette at 11:05 PM on October 23, 2011


Chekhovian: "I sometimes get this mix of different root plants made in potato chips, I'm sure its in every major grocery store in the "healthierish" section. It has the purple things in it there, not bad the way they do it, but what isn't good when sliced thin, quick fried, and salted?"

Jello?
posted by Splunge at 5:35 AM on October 24, 2011


I bet you could make a fried Jello the same way you make fried Ice Cream. I think that could be pretty good.
posted by Chekhovian at 3:08 PM on October 26, 2011


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